BY BILL PAYNE It is often said that even a trip of a thousand miles must begin with a first step and the first step of this Amistad journey began fourteen years ago, in 1998, when I introduced Assembly Bill 1300 to create the AMISTAD COMMISSION.
The bill was finally signed into law in 2002.
The mission of the AMISTAD COMMISSION was to develop social studies and history curriculum for all New Jersey schools that would be inclusive of the significant roles and contributions of Americans of African descent to the development of the New World and the United States of America.
As we know, until now, the contributions of African Americans have most often been omited or distorted from the teachings in our schools. In those instances where blacks have been included, we have often been depicted in a negative or derisive manner as in this story of Little Black Sambo; which was among the very first books our teacher read to my class in kindergarten or first grade in our Belleville School. You can imagine how I, and the only other African American child in the class felt. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of an education that repeatedly depicted blacks in negative and inferior roles. I a m certain many of you remember the depiction of enslaved people as pickannies or the song, “ol’ black joe.”
The truthful role of African Americans was not taught. For instance, in the Revolutionary War, feats of the Continental Army and the minute men are depicted but the role of Peter Salem, one of thousands of blacks who fought in the War of Independence, is omitted. I was taught about the Battle of Bunker Hill but never of the black soldiers who fought there. In fact, it was Peter Salem who is credited with killing British Major Pitcarn, which was a turning point in that war. We have fought bravely in every war in which our country has been involved.
African Americans have made extraordinary contributions in science, the arts, technology and other fields of endeavour. Unfortunately however, these are not generally taught in our schools throughout our state except, maybe, during black history month in february – the shortest month of the year!
Obviously, we must begin to teach the complete and true history of our great country. The Amistad curriculum represents a positive sea-change in the manner in which we educate our students in every one of new jersey’s 600 plus school districts. we have developed the website which will enable every classroom teacher TO CORRECTLY teach history and social studies.
We were the leader in this effort and I am pleased that the states of Illinois under the leadership of Assemblywoman Monique Davis and New York, under the sponsorship of Assemblyman Keith Wright, have also adopted legislation to create amistad commissions.
Interest in Amistad legislation has also been expressed by the education department of the national naacp and by the national black caucus of state legislatiors as well as other organizations.
The eyes of the nation are upon us, in fact, I have had several conversations with United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan about New Jersey’s pioneering efforts to finally correct the in acurate eurocentric curriculum which distorts the story of America.
The curriculum as generally taught in most school districts, often fosters a false sense of superiority among white students and renders african american CHILDREN IGNORANT of their ancestors’ role and contributions to the development of this country. thus, they are OFTEN DEVOID of self- esteem, SELF- confidence and pride which are essential FOR POSITIVE GROWTH.
Unfortunately, after fourteen years, New Jersey still has not provided sufficient support necessary to implement the amistad legislation to provide a truthful learning experience for all new jersey students. In fact, although AMISTAD curriculum is the true story of America, with the role of African-Americans finally infused into the fabric of our history. Serious efforts for the law’s implementation are occurring only in a limited number of inner-city, predominently African American school districts.
The fact is, PRIMARILY MINORITY EDUCATORS from those districts are the participants in these annual amistad institutes. Let me be frank, this is a clear indication to me that the curriculum developed by the amistad commission has not been accepted and adopted by the department of education as the bonafied history and social studies currriculum for schools throughout the State of New Jersey.
Again, let me be frank, it appears that the Department of Education has relegated the Amistad initiative to a low priority and regards it as simply another african american program; rather than as the true representation of the history of our country.
Let us be clear, we are advocating that truth ful curriculum be taught in all of our schools and the Amistad curriculum is the path to follow.
I have been told that they are trying to learn how to do this!!
My question is – why is it so difficult to teach the truth??
Obviously, first the commitment must be there.
Unfortunately, that commitment appears to be mimimal at best as evidenced by the lack of sufficient staff provided to the Amistad commission to fulfill our responsibilities throughout the state. as well as the annual uncertainty of a source of funding for the commission.
If we can land a vehicle on Mars then we can and must implement the mission of the Amistad Commission without further delay.
Fourteen years have gone by since the beginning of this mission. a decade as the law of New Jersey and we have progressed at the pace of a glacier. Its implementation is long over due. countless thousands of children have been deprived of our true history during those many years. More than a million students have entered and are near completion of secondary school without being exposed to the true inclusive history of our country.
That must come to an end!
Amistad is the law of the State of New Jersey and every one of us can play a role in its full implementation.
Let your voice be heard through your organization, your elected representatives, local boards of education and every group with which you are associated.
When we live up to the amistad law, we will be able to set the example for the rest of the nation to follow.
And our children will be proof positive that they can excel.
They deserve nothing less. and you are the key to the future success of the Amistad Mission!
Bill Payne, a former Assemblyman from Newark, delivered these remarks at the Newark Museum last week during an event marking the tenth anniversary of the Amistad legislation he authored and introduced while a member of the New Jersey Legislature in 1998. It passed and became law in 2008.